When it’s on: Wednesday, 11 February (9.00 pm)
As a History graduate, I was quite excited when I heard there was a film coming out called Byzantium, imagining an epic saga about the Eastern leg of the Roman Empire. To my shock, it turned out to be a low budget vampire flick, not even one set in glamourous Constantinople but instead the faded seaside glories of Hastings. On the plus side, it was to be directed by Neil Jordan, who had kind of gone off the radar a little after hitting his prestigious peak some twenty years ago with Interview with a Vampire, nor was this the first foray into horror by him – The Company of Wolves, made in 1984, was a visually rich effort filled with original ideas. For its time, Interview with a Vampire was a fairly novel step for the genre. The tale of a bloodsucker who has no passion for his vampiric ways, it was a major departure from the traditional concept of vampires as ruthless monsters, with varying degrees of sex appeal chucked in.
By the time Byzantium arrived, the sub-genre had developed into an outright war between those who thought vampires should be portrayed as frightening and inhuman, as depicted in 40 Days of Night, and the romantic objects of fantasy popularised for the female teenage market by the Twilight series. This is no place to rubbish the latter, not least because I quite like the Stephanie Meyer novels, even if the adaptations make for an uneven bunch, but it’s good to see people trying new directions with the mythology, exploring all facets of what vampires are, how they are created and what they do with their immortal lives.
Many stories suggest that vampires have used eternity to accrue massive wealth and live in luxury, but that is decidedly not the case in Byzantium, which tells of mother and daughter, Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saorise Ronan). Whilst the blousey Clara makes ends meet by taking stripping jobs and resorting to prostitution, Eleanor is allowed to maintain the existence of a perpetual sixteen year old, endlessly writing her story and then throwing the pages away. They’re being pursued by a shadowy patriarchal vampiric order, one of whom is killed gruesomely by Clara, which prompts the pair to flee from their grubby flat and move south. They have no money and even fewer plans, sleeping rough and relying on Clara’s wiles with menfolk to scratch out a living. It’s pure luck they fall in with Daniel Mays’s lonely Noel, who just happens to own an abandoned hotel, the eponymous Byzantium, which Clara duly converts into a bordello. The possibility of settling down gives Eleanor the opportunity to enrol in a sixth form college, based in the same building where, two hundred years before, she grew up as part of an orphanage, her place funded by Clara. Here, she meets hemophiliac Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a winsome, artistically minded young man who reaches into her like-minded soul. Against Clara’s and, you suspect, the audience’s better judgement, she commits her life story to paper for him. In the meantime, the order, led by Sam Riley, tracks the women to Hastings.
Byzantium started life as a play, A Vampire Story, written by Moira Buffini, who converted it into the film’s screenplay. The play deliberately avoided vampire clichés and even suggested the characters were just women and the supernatural elements were the product of Eleanor’s imagination, and whilst the film makes it clear what they are, there’s a marked absence of fangs; they feed by extending a fingernail and piercing the victim’s vein before latching on and sucking. Over the course of the story, we learn how Clara and Eleanor became what they are. The former is a fisherman’s daughter, who one day gets picked up by Johnny Lee Miller’s nasty piece of work officer and left to exist in prostitution. Worse, he leaves her pregnant, and she is forced to give the baby up for adoption. Succumbing to tuberculosis, she’s close to death before coming across Riley and learning of an island that offers eternal life, at the expense of her mortal soul. She sees it as a price worth paying and becomes a vampire, or sucreant. Some years later, Miller turns up again to ruin Eleanor, leaving her with little choice but to take her to the island. However, this has awful consequences. Female sucreants are frowned upon and Clara converting Eleanor is viewed as nothing less than outright heresy, turning the women into fugitives.
The results on screen are spellbinding, crammed with interesting shots and absorbing roles for the two main stars. Ronan is brilliant as Eleanor, in reality almost tallying the character’s teenage shell whilst effectively conveying the two hundred year old being locked within. For sustenance, she seeks out the old and infirm, offering death as a release, and it’s easy to imagine this as a ritual, practised and perfected over the years. Arterton’s just as good. A world away from shallow roles in blockbuster movies and channeling her gutsy performance in The Disappearance of Alice Creed, her Clara is beautiful and earthy, a survivor. At times, the women appear to hate each other, Eleanor sickened by Clara’s lies and grubby existence, but the bond between them is just as thick and the possibility of being parted draws them together.
The womens’ history is woven throughout the narrative, drip-feeding us the tale of their origins, mainly via Eleanor’s memories. Equally good is the camera work, scenes filmed in a constantly imaginative way so that it never gets dull. One of the best sees Eleanor walking through a hospital and passing a ward within which lies a dying old woman. She enters, approaches the patient, and we follow from outside, the view obscured be the patterned glass. It’s obvious what is about to happen, but the way it’s filmed lends the scene a sad, discrete element that would not have been present had the death simply been shown.
Byzantium is a stylised and highly recommended film, and it’s good to see Neil Jordan displaying this sort of form.